By Anthony Wood
The American West—which in the late 19th century was the most ethnically diverse region in the country—is now home to fourteen of the twenty whitest states in the nation. By in large, historians continue to grapple with this incongruity by expressing it as a demographic event wherein the number of white migrants to the West slowly but surely came to vastly outnumber all other racial groups. This event has come to be called the Whitening of the West.
But what led to this event, or really, was it an event at all?
Recently, serendipity has brought two pictures from Montana history together in a way that, I believe, illustrates to a certain extent that the Whitening of the West might not have simply been a single event that took place in the latter half of the 20th century.
The first is the well-known painting of York, the only black member of the Corps of Discovery, and personal slave of William Clark. This painting was done in 1908 by the famous Montana cowboy artist, Charlie Russell. It is Russell’s only painting depicting a black man, which by itself might suggest the ways that turn of the century Americans conceived of the West racially. York stands in the center of the Mandan lodge, on the very edge of the unexplored part of the continent. The Mandan gather around York, who stands shirtless and almost imperial in stance as they rub his skin to see if the color would come off.
Perhaps is it because Russell chose to paint this specific scene that it is one of the few stories about York that anyone can recall from the three-year journey. Or perhaps the event resonates for some reason with many American’s idea of the West. In the eyes of so many white westerners, though diverse people would inhabit the mountains, valleys, prairies, and deserts of the West, in the end, it was ostensibly destined to be the crucible in which American democracy and whiteness would be refined. In some communities, escaping the racialized slums of the urban Northeast allowed Italians, Irish, Slavs, and others to become part of the dominant power structure in Western locales, and in this way, become white.
But for others, under the thumb of strict racial categories that formed in the West and America broadly, the West would not make them “white.” In fact, a large number of the people that constituted this unprecedented ethnic diversity, both citizens as well as non-citizens, would never conform to a category of whiteness.
So when considering the Whitening of the West, we should ask how these people were viewed in light of these mythic aspirations that the western United States would become the locus of whiteness. Perhaps the painting of York is not representative enough of this to be a compelling piece of evidence.
So let us consider another image.
Captured in a black and white photograph, what appears to be a young white boy in full blackface sits in a cast iron tub. Above him, running water pours from a showerhead, back-grounded by a large brick building and the open sky. This young boy is riding on the back of trailer, down the thoroughfare of Havre, Montana, in the 1924 Elks parade. Images of white children washing the black from their skin had been a trope of certain 19th century soap companies, such as Imperial Leather, and something similar certainly could be taking place in photo. However, its location might also suggest that there are underlying currents of western racial identity that are exposed as well. In the early 1900s Havre had been home to nearly a hundred African Americans, many of which had been stationed nearby at Fort Assiniboine as members of the 24th and 25th Infantry or the 9th and 10th Calvary, all black regiments. By 1924, that population had dropped to roughly a dozen people, only two or three families. This trend followed for the rest of the State at the time as more than half of the total black population left between 1910 and 1930.
But it is important to acknowledge that the process of Whitening the West did not happen as a result of any natural or environmental factors. It was socially and culturally driven by a mythology to which white westerners tightly clung. They encouraged this racially charged project through exclusive fraternal and union memberships, marriage laws, employment practices, and culture—including paintings and even parades.
The exclusion of Montana’s black community is certainly a piece of the overall Whitening of the West. But in Havre and elsewhere, it was a process of exclusion, not an event. Considering this, the young western boy washing the black skin away could be seen as representative of and contributing to this process. For the few black residents remaining in Havre in 1924, imagine the visual of this boy being paraded down Main Street. What place could they see for themselves in this region? Perhaps they thought of the first black man to enter what would become Montana.
Havre is situated in the north central part of the state, very near what is commonly referred to as Russell country—the painter lived most of his life in nearby Great Falls. How could the famous image of York not come to mind? The West itself, artistically embodied in a group of its indigenous inhabitants, was trying to rub the color from his skin, just like the boy in the bathtub.
Anthony Wood is a graduate student in the Department of History and Philosophy at Montana State University where he studies Race, African Americans, and Settler Colonialism in the American West.